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Food service conditions

On November 26, 1989, a damaging riot broke out at Powhatan Correctional Center in Virginia.80 The riot was serious enough that the entire prison was locked down briefly, and one cellblock took five months to return to normal operations.81 Jimmie Lee Johnson, an inmate in one of the hardest-hit cellblocks, suffered through the lockdown for nine or ten weeks.82 During those weeks Johnson claimed he suffered a deprivation of various constitutional rights, and subsequently he filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.83 Johnson’s suit enumerated several particular insults, including overcrowding, insufficient medical attention, improper clothing, excessive heat and cold, inadequate diet, and the fact that when meals were served they were served cold and he was forced to consume them in his own cell.84

The court felt that several of the claims could not violate the Constitution in any circumstances, and the remainders were not supported by sufficient facts to build a successful case.85 On the food issues in particular the court disposed of the claim that the diet was inadequate because the claim was not supported by any facts and therefore entirely conclusory, and it felt that the presentation of the meals was adequate because “the simple fact that plaintiff was served cold bag lunch meals in his cell does not indicate that the meals were less than nutritious or served under unsanitary conditions.”86 The court was not completely unimpressed – it pointed out that harsh conditions are part of the debt that criminals must repay to society.87 The court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.88

Plaintiffs in a similar situation in Arizona fared a bit better.89 The state prison in the town of Safford suffered two separate riots in 1995.90 In each case the prison officials responded by restraining all of the 600-plus inmates outdoors while investigations were conducted, which was considered to be the safest way to handle the situations.91

After the August riot the prisoners were held outdoors for four days.92 During that time they were exposed to temperatures reaching as high as ninety-four degrees, which caused thirteen of them to require heat-related medical treatment.93 The prisoners were also exposed to overnight rain.94 Due to inadequate toilet facilities and prohibitions against movement many were even exposed to their own urine and defecation.95 Inmates were fed sack lunches, but according to them the lunches were frequently left spoiling in the sun for hours and were “inedible” upon delivery.96

After the December riot the prisoners were held outdoors for just seventeen hours, but during that time temperatures fell to just twenty-two degrees.97 During this time guards allowed prisoners to crawl a few feet to relieve themselves, but not so far as to keep urine off of nearby prisoners.98 After 5 a.m., well into the coldest part of the night, the prisoners were finally allowed to retrieve blankets for themselves.99

The prisoners filed two separate class action suits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the conditions they had experienced constituted cruel and unusual punishment.100 The trial court granted summary judgment for the defendants because the prison officials did provide some care for the inmates held outdoors.101 The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, however, reversed and remanded.102 It pointed out that the “relatively brief” time spent outdoors in each case could not justify an Eighth Amendment claim for “minor deprivations,” but the plaintiffs had provided evidence of “substantial deprivations” that may amount to cruel and unusual punishment.103

And finally, a prisoner by the name of Berrell Freeman explored multiple meanings of food service “conditions.”104 Freeman was a guest of Wisconsin’s “Supermax” maximum-security prison.105 Due to the dangerous nature of many of the inmates there, the prison requires its inmates to stand in the middle of their cells with the lights on in order to be served each meal.106 Additionally, the prisoner must be wearing pants, must not be wearing a possible weapon, and must have a reasonably clean cell.107

Freeman missed many meals due to his refusal to follow these rules, including his spectacularly unsanitary habit of smearing blood and feces on the walls of his cell and refusing to clean it.108 Over two and a half years he lost 45 pounds.109 As a result he filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the deprivation of so many meals constituted cruel and unusual punishment.110

The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit agreed that denying food for violation of a prison rule is unusual, and if it causes “serious harm” to the prisoner it may also be cruel.111 However, it drew a distinction between the withholding of food as a punishment and requiring basic conditions to be met before the food is served.112 The prison has a legitimate interest in protecting its guards.113 Since Freeman’s was the author of his own deprivation, and he did not suffer any significant harm, the court ruled against him.114

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